Le Grande Macabre

English National Opera. London.

This is a weirdo work most certainly. No sing-along tunes, no love and death. No story at all. What is it? Ligeti calls it an opera in four scenes. You could have fooled me, more like 24 situations, seemingly found inside a Christmas cracker, and none of them adding up to a moving scene.

The stage is filled with the most enormous figure of a woman When I write enormous she is big enough for running singers to dash in and out of her rude orifices. And the orchestra pit is packed with strange and wonderful percussion and blow into instruments.

Ligeti said this opera is supposed to be funny, making jokes about death and telling us all to cheer up. Maybe it is, I wouldn't have known if I hadn't read it in the programme.

Everyone sings their heart out exceedingly well, and the orchestra is dazzlingly conducted as it zaps its way through all the squeaks and whistles. But it all sounds so old fashioned, like experimental Schonberg form the 1950s, yet LE GRAND MACABRE was written in 1978!

The staging is magnificent, the vast doll turns, her head lifts and falls and a singer swings down out of her mouth. Her legs fall part and we see her intestines, all quivering and very real, as the secret police plunge out through them. {Though what the police are doing I've still to find out.} Brilliant projections flood the figure throughout, at one point her skeleton is projected onto her. Clouds form and drift past. singers exit from the back of her head shrieking and fly up into the sky. The doll endlessly turns on the revolve. A feast for the eyes.

Actually I hated the whole thing, thankfully it isn't a long piece, but once home I started to think about it and the strong images and glittering sounds are fixed and haunting in my head. I am humbled by my arrogance and refusal to try and understand?

Does an opera have to have a point? Does it have to be more than a spine tickling sensation? Isn't being haunted a sufficient experience? Isn't it just terrific that the visual experience is so much a serious part of this entire happening? Song and vision and athletics and words and and and, here are wielded together in an amazing whole. No cracks between the different creative disciplines. Pretty wondrous.

I still don't like it, but admire this production immensely.

Polly Hope,